1959 was a watershed year for movies in many ways. The French New Wave officially arrived changing film forever, and we started to see the birth of the Indie Film Movement in American as well. And yet, the film that I admired the most from this year were Hollywood films – from old masters.
10. The Fugitive Kind (Sidney Lumet)
I know a lot of critics don’t like Sidney Lumet’s version of the Tennessee Williams play, Orpheus Descending, but I can’t help but love the film – with its strange direction, wild performances and its choice to wallow in the type of sexual melodrama that only Williams could write this well. Marlon Brando is wonderful as a drifter who comes to a small town in the South – and becomes the immediate object of desire by the women there. Joanne Woodward is wonderfully over the top as an alcoholic nymphomaniac who lusts after him, Maureen Stapleton quietly touching as a simple housewife and Anna Magnani a firebrand, as the bitter wife of a cruel, sadistic man slowly dying (Victor Jory). Lumet has a way with turning plays into films, and his direction in this film is strange – its long close-ups, it slow pace that allows the characters to slowly build, and the sexual tension to simmer, works wonderfully well. No, it isn’t the best version of a Williams play on film – but it’s great nonetheless.
9. Shadows (John Cassavetes)
With Shadows, John Cassavetes not only started one of the most interesting directorial careers in America cinema, he also pretty much found the Independent Film Movement. Shadows is not, for me anyway, one of Cassavetes very best films – it is a little too rough, too unformed, and doesn’t contain the power of films like Faces or A Woman Under the Influence. Yet, everywhere you look in Shadows, there is Cassavetes breaking new ground in American film – the jazz infused score, the sense of isolation and alienation of the cast, the interracial relationship, which was downright daring in 1959. Yes, watching the film now, it has aged – it has been copied too much over the years – and yet if you put the film into historical perspective, it is one of the most important in American history.
8. Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk)
Douglas Sirk was the master at melodrama – no director had a better feel for it than he did. Imitation of Life was his last film – and one of his best. It is the story of an ambitious young widow (Lana Turner) who wants to become a Broadway star, and her relationship with her black servant (Juanita Moore) who starts out acting as a nanny to Turner’s daughter (Sandra Dee). To me though, the most interesting role in the film belongs to Susan Kohner, as Moore’s light skinned daughter. She is so light skinned in fact that she can pass for white – and wants to do this. She hates that she is black, and resents her mother for living the life that she does. The film is a great melodrama about Turner’s ambitions, and her various relationships with men, but it the struggles of Moore and Kohner who truly makes this one of Sirk’s best film – an emotional powerhouse.
7. Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
Robert Bresson was one of the most interesting filmmakers in history. He was a director who hated performances – he wanted his actors to show as little emotion as possible at any given moment, yet at the same time, he like to shot them head on – staring directly into the camera. The combination is eerie, and in a way lets the audience see themselves in the film whatever emotions we think the actors are feeling, are really the ones we supply them with. Pickpocket is one of his best films – a film about a thief who feels that he has the moral right to steal from others – because he is somehow better than they are, and as such, more entitled to their money. But there is also something masochistic about him as well – late in the film, he knows the undercover cop is an undercover cop, but he tries to pick his pocket anyway – in the hope of being caught and being punished. There are great sequences in the film – one on a train that shows a three man team working to pick the pockets of as many people as possible that is a masterpiece of shot selection and editing, that movies fluidly. But overall, Pickpocket is simply a film, like all of Bresson’s best work, that sits back and observes his characters in whatever situation they are in, and asks us to make of them what we will.
6. Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger)
Anatomy of a Murder was a groundbreaking legal thriller when it was released. It was one of the first mainstream movies to talk openly about rape and sex – it also showed a rather cynical view of lawyers, who do pretty much anything they can do to win. James Stewart gives one of his best performances as a Defense Attorney, who takes on the case of an Army officer (Ben Gazzara) accused of murdering the man that his wife (Lee Remnick) says raped her. Stewart lays on his “simple country lawyer” schtick pretty thick in the courtroom (it has been copied and mocked ever since), but he is brilliant in the film – and the film shows just what he’ll do to win. On the other side, George C. Scott is equally as good as the prosecutor from the city who pulls his own tricks. Otto Preminger’s film is big and sprawling – encompassing many characters throughout – and remains one of the best trial movies ever made. It doesn’t quite have the originality that it must have had in 1959, but it is a great film nonetheless.
5. The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut)
The 400 Blows was Francois Truffaut’s first film – and perhaps his best one. It is certainly among his most personal films. It details the life of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a young teenager who is essentially abandoned and judged by all the adults in his life. His mother never wanted him, and all these years later he remains merely a distraction for her from what she really wants. She is often cruel and dismissive of him and why she tries to be nice, it comes across as disingenuous. His stepfather is nice to him – but doesn’t really care about him. His teacher hates him. And on and on it goes – he meets many adults in his life, and none of them really seem to care about him – mistreat him, don’t understand him. He runs away, again, at the end of the film and ends up at the ocean with nowhere else to go. This was Truffaut’s life, and it shows, in effect, how cinema saved him – gave him something to love. It is one of the biggest films about children ever made.
4. Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder)
Billy Wilder has made some of the best comedies of all time – and while I think he has made greater comedies than Some Like It Hot, I’m not sure he ever made one that was out and out funnier than this one. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis gives great performances as two musicians who witness a murder – and disguise themselves as women to escape the mob. The film is a classic screwball comedy in the best sense – in that it is utterly hilarious, the plot barely matters, and the acting is superb. Jack Lemmon has never been funnier than he is here – especially when he’s paired up with Joe E. Brown as a millionaire who falls in love with him as a woman (and Lemmon may consider marrying for security). He carries his part of the movie effortlessly, and when teamed up with Curtis, they make one of the best comedy duos in history. For his part, Curtis is great paired up with Marilyn Monroe – who never gets the respect she deserves because most directors just used her as an sexual object. But Wilder uses Monroe’s sexuality to great effect – and teamed up with Curtis, one of the fastest talking actors in history, she more than holds her own. Some Like it Hot has been copied so many times since, but it has never been surpassed for a movie of its type. It remains one of the greatest comedies to ever come out of Hollywood.
3. North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)
North by Northwest is perhaps the quintessential Alfred Hitchcock film. It isn’t his best, but it’s the one that takes everything that Hitchcock was doing before and throws it together in one deliriously entertaining thriller. It has a classic Hitchcock setup – Cary Grant plays a man who is pursued by mysterious agents across the country because they think he is someone else. He has no idea why they want him, but his first encounter with James Mason makes him realize he doesn’t want to be caught. He tries to find the man they really want, leading him all over the country. The film is fast paced and exciting – the iconic cornfield sequence is brilliant, as is the finale on the top of Mount Rushmore. Grant was the perfect foil for this movie, and he is supported wonderfully well by the evil Mason, and the cold blond Eva Marie Saint as the woman who helps him. Hitchcock was a master at playing the audience, and he plays them perfectly in this film.
2. Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks)
Rio Bravo is perhaps the best film that Howard Hawks ever directed – and considering his career that is saying something. It is also one of the most influential films ever made – it has been copied repeatedly by just about everyone, and yet no one has quite beat it. It has a simple story – four men – a Sheriff (John Wayne), a drunk (Dean Martin), a gunslinger kid (Ricky Nelson) and a old coot (Walter Brennan) are holed up inside the Sheriff’s office protecting a prisoner that the whole town wants to get at. There is even a romantic interest for Wayne in the form of Angie Dickinson. Yet this movie, that seems so chock full of clichés – works amazingly well. It’s because the characters, and their relationship to each other, feel real and unforced. And because Hawks was an amazing visual director who loads every scene with suspense, a feeling of unease and impending violence. This is one of Wayne’s best performances – he remains silent and authoritative, which is when he was at his best. Hawks would use this same formula himself in two other films starring Wayne – El Dorado and Rio Lobo – and while both are good, Rio Bravo is a masterpiece.
1. Room at the Top (Jack Clayton)
Despite being an Oscar winning film, Room at the Top is not as well remembered today as it should be. It is one of the first gritty, realistic British films – the start of the British New Wave if you will – is daring in its sexual content, and is also one of the strongest indictments of social climbing and corporate culture I can remember. Laurence Harvey gives an excellent performance as Joe, a young man who arrives in the city from his lower class factory town. He sets his sights on Susan (Heather Sears), the daughter of the richest man in the district – who doesn’t approve of their relationship and sends her away. Meanwhile, Joe starts seeing Alice (Simone Signoiret), an unhappily married older woman who falls in love with him. However, when Susan returns, Joe seduces her and gets her pregnant – meaning that he will finally get to married his way up in social standing – even as if makes him, and even more so Alice, miserable. This is not an easy movie – it isn’t one that wraps everything up into a happy ending, but instead is a tragedy because Joe is such a prick, and he uses everyone around him for his own devices. The acting in superb – not only Harvey and Signoiret, who won the Oscar this year, but the entire cast, including Hermione Baddeley – who made such an impression in just over two minutes of screen time as Alice’s friend, that she got nominated for an Oscar herself. Room at the Top deserves to be ranked among the best British films of all time – and considering the films on this list which I think this is better then, the best films from anywhere.
Just Missed The Top 10: Ben-Hur (William Wyler), Compulsion (Richard Fleischer), Floating Weeds (Yashujiro Ozu), Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais), On the Beach (Stanley Kramer), Shadows (John Cassavetes), Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi).
Notable Films Missed: Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus) , The Diary of Anne Frank (George Stevens), Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa), The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang), Kaagaz Ke Phool (Guru Dutt), The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinneman), Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher), The Sign of Leo (Erich Rohmer), Le Trou (Jacques Becker), The World of Apu (Satyajit Ray).
Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Ben-Hur (William Wyler)
What can one say about Ben-Hur. It is the type of HUGE epic that Hollywood has forgotten how to make these days – for better and for worse. The film is exciting, and has some interesting homoerotic subtext in it that seems obvious today, even though apparently went over most people’s head in 1959 (including Heston’s, who insists there was no subtext in the film, just like when he would portray Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ectasy, he would insist that he did a lot of research and that Michelangelo was assuredly not gay). The film has many great moments in it. But for me, as entertaining and well made as it is, it also drags in places as almost any movie that is three and half hours long undoubtedly would. It is still a motion picture spectacle of the highest order – but it isn’t one I want to revisit any time soon.
Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur
Charlton Heston was nowhere near the best actor in the world – but he was good in roles like this, that required little more of him than to be square jawed and stoic. His performance as Ben-Hur certainly carries the film – and is also an intensely physical performance – but he remains one of the least interesting characters in the film for me. In a way, that is necessary – with so much going on around him, the film needs a rock at the center, and Heston perfectly embodied said rock. Yet it doesn’t particularly make it the best performance of the year. At least three of other nominees – Laurence Harvey, Jack Lemmon, and James Stewart – were better than Heston, who certainly benefited from the Ben-Hur sweep.
Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Simone Signoret, A Room at the Top
Simone Signoiret embodied tragedy better than almost any other actress I can think of. Remember her great performances after A Room at the Top – her work in the over bloated Ship of Fools seems tragically real, her performance as the doomed resistance fight in Army of Shadows is heartbreaking. She was one of those rare actresses who got sexier as she got older – and in Room at the Top she is at the peak of her acting ability. Watch the film and try to not let her break your heart – you will fail.
Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Hugh Griffth, Ben-Hur
This win has always somewhat mystified me. Yes, Hugh Griffth is great fun (if you can get over the inherent racism of the role) as a Sheik slave trader. But in nearly three and half hours of movie, he’s barely in the damn thing. Much better would have been Stephen Boyd, who is far and away the best in the film, as Ben-Hur’s rival (and according to screenwriter Gore Vidal, former lover as well. He let Boyd in on the secret, but not Heston, giving their scenes together an odd, but wonderful, feel to them). Of the nominees, I easily would have gone with George C. Scott as the prosecutor in Anatomy of a Murder.
Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Shelley Winters, The Diary of Anne Frank
I really don’t have an excuse for not watching The Diary of Anne Frank – other than the fact that I have seen so many Holocaust films that there are often times when I don’t think I could watching another one – especially a long one. I have faith that Shelley Winters is great in her role – she always was great, even if the Academy wouldn’t nominate her for her best work in Night of the Hunter or Lolita. Personally, I think it would have been great for the Academy to give the Oscar to Susan Kohner’s groundbreaking work, or even Juanita Moore’s heartbreaking work, in Imitation of Life – but how can melodrama really compete with the Holocaust at the Oscars?